By: Danny Mooers, Dordt Assistant Sports Information Director
A four year stretch of three women’s Cross Country GPAC titles combined with four top-five GPAC finishes for the men is nothing short of impressive. The 2011-2014 string of seasons for Dordt Cross Country are some of the best in program history. Coach Greg Van Dyke had been working since 2004 to get the cross country program a consistent spot near the top of the GPAC. Along with the titles and top five finishes came numerous National Meet qualifications for both individual runners and entire teams.
At the conclusion of the 2014 season, Coach Van Dyke broke the news that he would be leaving his role as Head Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Coach to become the Director of Admissions for Dordt.
“It (Leaving) was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever faced in my life,” Van Dyk said. “I loved coaching. We had a successful team with great people. Leaving the athletes was difficult. After recruiting them, I felt like I owed them the next four years.”
As the applicants for Head Cross Country Coach rolled in, Van Dyke wasn’t as optimistic as he had anticipated. His confidence didn’t increase until he heard that Nate Wolf was going to apply. Van Dyke and Wolf had coached against each other while Wolf was at Northwestern from 2005-2012. Battles for GPAC titles and recruits were common among the two, but they remained friends throughout it all.
When the Dordt job opened, Wolf was the Head Cross Country and Track Coach at Southwest Minnesota State. Wolf was interviewed, offered the position and given a short window of time to decide. When he made the decision to take the job, Wolf called Van Dyke to discuss it.
“I told him that if he didn’t want me here, I wouldn’t take offense to that,” Wolf said. “We were friends. I didn’t want him to be frustrated or irritated. I only wanted to do it if he wanted to give it to me. And he gave me his blessing and full confidence.”
The fall of 2015 was Wolf’s first season as Dordt Head Cross Country coach. Throughout the summer and season, Wolf decided quickly that he didn’t want to turn the program on its head. His goal was to assimilate to what was already in place, tweak a few things and keep the standard Van Dyke had set. Wolf knew that uprooting the program would lead to more struggle and unnecessary road blocks.
“Coach Wolf and I have really similar coaching philosophies when it comes to coaching cross country,” Van Dyke said. “We were at a coaching conference together a few months before he took the job and we found ourselves agreeing on things like team culture all the way down to the science of running.”
Both coaches put a major emphasis on relationships. As a result, the first semester with Coach Wolf at the helm wasn’t an easy transition for the runners. Several athletes went into Van Dyke’s office throughout the first few months to talk about the differences in the program. Van Dyke made a point to mention those conversations to Coach Wolf.
Van Dyk decided right away to not stop over at Coach Wolf’s office on a daily basis and discuss the team. He was always there if Wolf needed to talk, but it was important for him to keep his distance and let Coach Wolf operate the team all on his own.
“I wanted the athletes to look at me the way they looked at Greg,” Wolf said. “I had to foster relationships on the fly throughout the season. I was fortunate to be able to do so and have success.”
Wolf relied on the team leaders to help in the transition. Kayla Groeneweg (Byl) on the women’s side acted as a go between to help grow the trust between Wolf and the rest of the athletes. He quickly saw that the women enjoyed accomplishing things together. By focusing on the team side of things, the women have continued their success.
“I always tell the women that there’s nothing more intimidating than a group of women with one thing on their mind,” Wolf said. “The next athlete up mentality helps create the culture that is in place today.”
For the men, Wolf knew that he was going to have to prove himself. Male athletes want to see themselves as individuals that add to a larger machine. Discussions with the men’s team to help him understand their methodology started the ball rolling for creating a new culture. Van Dyke knew that Wolf could help the men reach the same level as the women, but that culture change was going to have to happen.
Navigating the two teams and creating relationships all while finding success is why the 2015 seasons was one of Wolf’s favorite seasons ever.
The women concluded the 2015 season with their fourth consecutive GPAC title and earned a trip to nationals where they finished ninth.
Coach Wolf won GPAC Coach of the Year for women’s cross country on a team he had little involvement in creating.
“I remember my wife telling me there’s no place for that (women’s) program to go but down” Wolf said. “I understood that there would be some ebbs and flows. I wanted the women’s team to perform and be successful for Greg. I did and still do feel a burden, but not in a bad way. It motivates me.”
The men finished the 2015 season in sixth place.
The 2016 season came with some major improvements on the men’s side. As the year progressed, the men found themselves in the top two of their final three meets. Before the season, current Cross Country Graduate Assistant Caleb Drake transferred into Dordt from Olivet Nazarene in Illinois. Drake was an All-American and brought that mentality to the men’s side.
“It was during the 2016 season that I saw the culture shift,” Wolf said. “One of the men on the team told me that they no longer wanted to do the minimum amount of work to succeed. They wanted to start doing the maximum and see where the program could go.”
The men finished the year with a second place finish in the GPAC. The women finished second in the GPAC; their first title loss in four years.
“We have had to do it a bit differently than Greg did with the women’s team,” Wolf said. “He had some stud top end runners. We’ve had to develop the women throughout their four years and help them become our top end talent as they become upperclassmen.”
The 2017 season came with a third place finish for the men. While they regressed in the standings, Wolf was still confident that they were trending in the right direction. Many of the athletes believed a trip to the National Meet was possible despite Coach Wolf never mentioning anything about it.
The women regained their spot on top of the GPAC in 2017 and finished 11th at the National Meet. Another GPAC title for the women in 2018 gave Coach wolf three titles in his first four years. Fighting against complacency was something that started to become a reality.
“Once you get complacent and lose that edge, it’s hard to gain it back,” Wolf said. “We want to keep this seven or so year run at the top. We’ve had to create an atmosphere where athletes can develop and grow as they get more experience in the program.”
In 2018, the men earned their first ever GPAC title. Getting over that final hump took several years and Wolf attributes it to the large group mentality of wanting to compete at a higher level.
“One of the first things Greg told me was that I can get the men's side to the level of the women’s side,” Wolf said. “He knew we could do it, but we needed a large group of athletes who were willing to make sacrifices to get us there.”
The men’s team earned another GPAC title in 2019 and finished 16th at the National Meet. The women took second place after falling to Concordia.
“I went up to Greg and apologized after the women took second,” Wolf said. “He got somewhat frustrated at me for apologizing, but I wanted him to know I still think about and am thankful for the groundwork he has laid.”
Both Van Dyke and Wolf are optimistic about the future of the Cross Country program. A top five or ten finish at the National meet for the men is the goal for the upcoming seasons. The women are going to have to replace a few of their top runners that graduated this year, but top finishes in the GPAC are still expected.
“The success that both the men and women have seen doesn’t come without Greg’s willingness to support me,” Wolf said. “There’s a huge investment of effort on his part and I greatly respect him for how he handled everything and set the foundation for both of the programs.”